Schnittke’s Choral Music of 70-80s
It was a real shock for all of us young Russian composers, when at the beginning of 70-s Alfred Schnittke, whom we incredibly respected and trusted in everything he did, and who always has been a consistent follower of the radical avant-garde division in music, unexpectedly turned back to old conventional style and to the unjustified simplification of his musical language.
It was difficult to accept, but it was the spirit of the times: tiredness and disillusionment with the structuralism and complexity, as well as the rolling back to the positions of so-called ‘new simplicity’. But at the same time Schnittke suddenly won a great number of new admirers and worshippers, and since then his music began its mighty rising to the top of its recognition and popularity.
One of the most cardinal works of that kind was the ‘Concerto for Mixed Chorus’ (1984-5). The première took place on the 9th June 1986 at the State Pushkin’s Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow with the State Chamber Choir conducted by Valery Poliansky. Schnittke based his Concerto on the 3rd Chapter of ‘The Book of Lamentations’ by the Armenian monk Grigor Narekatsi (951 — 1003) translated into Russian by Naum Grebnev.
Everybody knew Schnittke’s strong interest in the subject of God and religion, the subject, which has always been highly important for Russian intelligentsia and always forbidden in Soviet time. This theme was raised again and again as a form of protest against communist ideology, for the freedom of the conscience and for the choice to believe or not.
Schnittke joined this ‘God-seeking’ division and already wrote the catholic ‘Requiem’ in 1975, which was allowed by authorities only because it was performed as incidental music for Friedrich Schiller’s play ‘Don Carlos’. The words of the Requiem have also been used as a text hidden underneath the instrumental lines of his Piano Quintet written in 1972-76 in memory of his mother. His Second Symphony ‘St Florian’ (1979) was a ‘hidden’ or ‘invisible Mass’, where instead of the Latin text the soloists and choir just sang ‘ah’. ‘Der Sonnengesang des Franz Assisi’ (1976) was a ‘hidden’ work, which has never been performed in the Soviet Russia. Schnittke’s agonizing search for the religion or congregation he belongs to was reflected in his Fourth Symphony — another “song without words” – for four soloists, chorus and orchestra (1984), where characteristics of Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic religious music were merged in one strange multi-faced combination.
In his ‘Concerto for Mixed Chorus’, in spite of a slight flavour of the ancient Armenian choral singing (such as the ‘empty’ parallel fifths of the opening phrase or the mode with the augmented second and diminished octave in 3rd movement), Schnittke with no doubt had chosen a clear model of the Russian Choral Concerto of XVIII century represented by such composers as Dmitry Bortniansky or Maxim Berezovsky, who made a strong influence on the liturgical music of such great Russian composers as Peter Tchaikovsky or Sergei Rachmaninov.
The four movements of the Concerto reflect the four different subdivisions and themes of the chapter:
- The rapturous praise and appeal to God;
- The list of those whom the lamentations might be expected to reach;
- The hope of redemption and deliverance for those who will understand the essence of these words and for the poet himself who wrote them;
- The humble prayer asking God to complete these songs and give them a healing power.
The musical language of the piece is incredibly simple: it is based on traditional harmony and familiar melodic formulas of Russian Orthodox music of the past, so-called ‘znamennyj raspev’ (a singing by signs or neumes). But listening to it again and again, one can recognize some typical elements of Schnittke’s style and even come to the understanding that the piece is a sort of a microcosm or vocabulary of Schnittke’s personal musical language in its most open and clearly visible form.
Example 1. The opening of the ‘Concerto for Mixed Chorus’.
We can point out some of its features, for example: a gradual forming of diatonic clusters as at the second line of the 1st movement: ‘ bestowing priceless gifts upon us’ (‘bestsennymi darami nas dar’ashchij’); the confrontation of the triads with common third, as C-sharp minor and C major by the words ‘invisible, eternal’ (‘nevidimyj, izvechnyj’) or G-sharp major and G major with the text ‘and terrifying and beneficent’ (‘i usrtashaiushchij i blagadatnyj’); the comparison of major and minor triads of the same or enharmonically same tonic as D-sharp minor and E-flat major expressing the words ‘treasure, purest rain’ (‘klad, prechistyj dozhd’’); the extensive use of imitations or canons as in the 2nd and 3rd movements; the use of chromatic scales in the melody and even chromatic moving clusters in the harmony as in the 3rd movement at the words about sin or death; use of wide intervallic leaps (sevenths, octaves or ninths) for the expression of some great and important affects such as ‘the burden of unredeemed sins’ (‘gruz grekhof neiskupl'onnykh’) in the 3rd movement. This list goes on and on.
The dependence on the text was in this case especially enormous. Schnittke himself stated about the piece: ‘I wrote music which was evoked by this text, but not the music I wanted to write’. This phrase can explain a lot about the style and direction the composer has been forced to chose, forced not by the fashion or striving for popularity, but by the attentive listening of his inner voice, the trust in his own intuition and wish to express his most intimate and profound thoughts and feelings.
But this process began much earlier and we can see some similar results in his other pieces, represented here. ‘Voices of Nature’ (Golosa prirody, 1972) is a vocalise for 10 female voices (5 sopranos and 5 altos) and vibraphone (without text). Its first public performance took place in spring 1975 at the Bolshoi Hall of the Moscow Conservatory with the Students’ Choir of the Moscow Conservatory conducted by Boris Tevlin.
At the beginning this was an episode from the music to the documentary by Mikhail Romm ‘And Yet I Believe’ (The World Today). After the terrible pictures of war and catastrophes, drug addiction and the revival of Nazism, suddenly a dreamlike episode follows showing the mountains and forests, deer and the Earth from space accompanied by music of light and beauty.
Schnittke found that the piece is quite suitable for concert performance, in spite of the fact that “this period of two sentences is too short”: just 30 sounds of melody and about 4 minutes of the duration. The music begins with a very quiet middle D and gradually follows up finding its path by groping, forming at its way some diatonic clusters or tonal chords (of B-flat major and C minor) and quietly disappearing in the upper D. The sound of tremolo vibraphone is perfectly merged together with female voices generating some magically glimmering musical timbre.
Another piece ‘Minnesang’ (1980 — 1981) was written for 52 voices (18 sopranos, 12 altos, 10 tenors and 12 bassi). It was first performed on the 21st of October 1981 at the festival ‘Musikprotokol’, at the Chamber Hall of Graz Congress in Graz with the ‘Pro Arte’ Choir (Graz) conducted by Karl Ernst Hoffman. It sets the original text by Minnesingers.
Influenced by Provençial troubadours and Northern French trouvéres the poetry of German lyric poets flourished in 12th-13th centuries. They called themselves Minnesingers (Singers of Love) because love (Minne) was the principal subject of their poetry. Minnesingers were mainly of aristocratic origin in contrast to Meistersingers who were of middle merchant class and came two centuries later.
As Richard Wagner in his ‘Tannhäuser’ or Richard Strauss in his ‘Guntram’, Schnittke also was attracted to the poetry and music of Minnesang. He began to work with this material in 1977. At first he planned to write an instrumental piece based on the songs by minnesingers, and intended for this his 3rd Violin concerto. But later he rejected this idea and decided to keep the vocal melodies for vocal music.
Schnittke selected a number of the original songs of the Monk of Salzburg (c.1350-1410), Friedrich von Sonneburg, Alexander Meister, Heinrich von Meissen (d.1318), Neidhard von Reuenthal (c.1180-1240), Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170-1230) and Wolfram von Eschenbach (d.1220). He distributed the fragments of these songs to 52 singers divided into ten groups of 3-6 people plus 2 groups of soloists. “I set the task to limit myself with only montage work without changing any note of these songs” – Schnittke wrote in his program note for the premiere performance.
Example 2. The opening of the ‘Minnesang’ (from the composer’s manuscript)
He did not want to use the choir in its usual way, but suggested to disperse the singers on the stage and around it or to perform the piece somewhere, but not in a concert hall. As Schnittke stated: “I wanted to create a picture of some magic act, which is based on this music. And the middle Hochdeutsche text, incomprehensible now even for Germans, which I left unchanged, has no importance here — it is transformed into phonemes, and does not express any plot, but rather creates some mood”.
Already in the Finale of his First Symphony (1972), Schnittke had a similar experience — working with borrowed musical material. There he took a number of Bach’s Chorales, and made them sound simultaneously in a rich clustering C major. Here he chose a Dorian “white keys” D minor, exploring the exquisite multi-voiced diatonic textures based on the multi-storey unison canons for at least 15 minutes before a noticeable modulation into C major with a huge climax on C. After that a two-minute coda written in quiet c-minor follows, suggesting a charming tonal contrast to the main body of the piece.
The paradox of this composition is that the score looks extremely complicated, but it sounds amazingly simple and attractive. But its simplicity is very different to the simplicity of the language of the ‘Concerto for Mixed Chorus’, which convincingly expresses very profound and complicated ideas and feelings, and where every smallest gesture and every motive is very significant and powerful. And the piece ‘Voices of Nature’ is also different: its innocent intuitive simplicity and astonishing laconism is capable of showing beauty in its greatest possible scale like ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’.
- Another version of this article was published in the Booklet as a sleeve note for the CD Schnittke, Choir Concerto, Minnesang, Voices of Nature, Holst Singers, Stephen Layton, Hyperion, 2001 Compact Disc CDA67297 (English).
- Naum Isaevich Grebnev (Наум Исаевич Гребнев 1921 — 1988) — Russian poet and translator.